Almost four hundred years ago, Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller (the Tosfos Yom Tov) was in mortal danger. What saved his life? The answer to this question depends on the authenticity of an intriguing document that surfaced many decades after the event.
DEFAMING THE STATE RELIGION
The story begins in Shevat, 5387/1627. The Tosfos Yom Tov was appointed Av Beis Din of Prague and printed his two famous commentaries on the Rosh, Maadanei Melech and Lechem Chamudos. How did this lead to his downfall?
At that time, Europe was going through one of its most destructive conflicts in history, the Thirty Years War (5368/1618-5408/1648), which destroyed and impoverished huge swathes of Western Europe. The Holy Roman Empire (a patchwork of states in the territory of modern day Germany and beyond) was desperate for money and taxed the Prague kehilla 40,000 thalers a year.
The Tosfos Yom Tov recorded subsequent events in his Megillas Eiva (Scroll of Hate), to “inform my descendants and all who read it what was done to me by unprovoked, false enemies with their sharp tongues and piercing words.”
“Because of this [tax],” he records, “people of the kehilla had to borrow on interest. When time came for repayment, there were conflicts regarding how much to pay, enmities resulted, and plots were hatched in secret and publicly. All my efforts to heal matters quietly or by force failed.”
People were resentful not only against the money lenders, but also against the Tosfos Yom Tov who had helped prioritize who had to pay most of their strangling tax. He refused to believe people who warned him of the plots against him.
The first inkling of the truth came after he was ordered to Vienna to face criminal charges. On the 11th of Tammuz, the Councilor of Ferdinand II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, charged him with his crime.
“He spoke to me harshly in the Emperor’s name about the Rosh I had
printed with my two commentaries, Maadanei Melech and Lechem Chamudos,” the scroll records. “The emperor had been informed that I wrote things there opposing their religion and belief.”
The Tosfos Yom Tov absolutely denies a rumor still current in our times, that he was jailed because of the name of his seforim: “I was never at all accused of the sefer being named Maadanei Hamelech. This was an invention of the talebearers to cover up what they had done.” However, it is intriguing to note that the sefer’s name was indeed altered. The name Maadanei Hamelech is mentioned only in the introduction to the sefer, while the commentary on the Rosh is titled Maadanei Yom Tov.
Defaming the national religion was a capital crime and for eleven days, the Tosfos Yom Tov sat in prison, suspended between life and death. Then he received the verdict:
“According to the commission, the verdict should have certainly been death. However, since the emperor is a benevolent king as his fathers were, they have done the kindness of giving you opportunity to redeem yourself for 12,000 Rhine Thalers in ready cash, not payments. In addition, the books in question should be eradicated from the world. If you do not agree, there will be place for no mercy but only the death penalty.”
A NEW VERSION OF THE FACTS
It seems evident from this narrative that Emperor Ferdinand II only commuted the death penalty out of the goodness of his heart. However, later editions of the Scroll of Hate have an addendum longer than the scroll itself, which gives a surprising twist to the sequence of events.
“I, Shmuel, the oldest son of Rabeinu Rav Yom Tov Lipman HaLevi Tosfos Yom Tov, began to publish this scroll, which contains the story of the messirah done by his enemies,” the addendum begins. “I also took upon myself to write the extent of my efforts regarding this matter and also to relate the story with more explanations of many wonderful things that happened at the time, and which my father, for a number of reasons, did not want to write.”
Rav Shmuel relates how his father sent him from Vienna to a yeshivah in Metz, France, four years earlier. At the time his father was imprisoned he was traveling home via Vienna and lay down to rest about a mile from the city walls.
“I noticed a wild bull emerge from the town and pursue a wealthy young woman,” he continues. “Running with her was a small nursemaid carrying a young boy. The bull was only ten measures away from them and chasing them with loud bellowing and great wrath. This was because of a red cloth the nurse had on her, as bulls are generally provoked to anger by red objects. Seeing this, I immediately ran and removed the cloth from the nurse and threw it at the bull’s feet. The bull raced towards the cloth and began tearing it with its feet and tossing it between its horns. Meanwhile, the women had time to hide under a tree.
“At this moment, their carriage arrived with the young woman’s husband who was dressed in expensive clothes and wearing medals. The carriage was embroidered with silk. They told him what had happened and explained how I had saved them. The minister, an ambassador of France… wanted to give me money but I turned down his offer. When he asked me how he could reward me I replied, ‘My reward will be this. Your honor should think well of the Jews and remember and know that we too know how to do good without hope of recompense.’
“To this the minister replied, ‘Nonetheless. if anything happens to you and you need help, come to me and I will do for you as you did for me.’”
Later, Rav Shmuel writes that this minister was Turenne, officially known as Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne.
Rav Shmuel discovered that his father was languishing in jail and rushed to see him. After a tearful reunion, Rav Yom Tov related how he had appeared before twelve judges and investigators the day before, described the lengthy argument he had with them regarding the honesty of Jews, and how the judges told him that his crime justified condemning not only him, but also exiling the whole of Klal Yisroel.
“I have almost no hope for my life,” the Tosfos Yom Tov concluded. “But I am not sorrowful regarding that as what difference is it to me whether I die earlier or later? Death is man’s destiny. Rather, my great worry is for all our community, as I am greatly fearful that this incident might result in a general expulsion.”
Rav Shmuel raced to the home of the French ambassador and begged him to intervene.
“I will be in town soon and talk to the councilor,” Turenne promised. “The situation will then alter tremendously as I come with the power of France, and France has a lot of power to give orders in this country.”
After a sleepless night, Shmuel hurried to the ambassador to hear how his mission had fared.
“Beloved son,” Turenne told him. “Your father will live and your community will not be expelled. The punishment will be commuted for money. Had I known of this earlier not even a cent would have been required, but now the matter has gone too far.”
A few days later, the ambassador joyously informed Rav Shmuel that a messenger had just arrived to inform him that King Louis XIV of France had appointed him Field Marshal over all
the armies of France, and also took the opportunity to explain all the political shenanigans that had led to Rav Yom Tov’s arrest.
So according to the addendum of Rav Shmuel, the king commuted the Tosfos Yom Tov’s death sentence not because of his benevolent heart, but due to the urging of the French ambassador.
After reading Rav Shmuel’s amazing report, it came to the writer’s attention that this addendum to the Scroll of Hate is claimed to be a forgery first printed in 5641/1881, about 250 years after the events it reports. What better way to investigate this claim than to check the accuracy of the addendum’s historical claims? Would they bear up to scrutiny?
Apparently not, since according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition), Turenne began his military career in the Netherlands and had nothing to do with France until 5390/1630, the year after the Tosfos Yom Tov’s imprisonment. In addition, he became Marshal of France not at the time of the Tosfos Yom Tov’s imprisonment, as the addendum claims, but fourteen years later in 5410/1643.
Despite the emperor’s reprieve of his death penalty, the Tosfos Yom Tov was still in grave danger.
“I prepared a supplication explaining that although I fall on my face with gratitude for all the kindness he did me to save my life,” he writes, “the emperor should know that this is tantamount to giving me a condition to ascend to the heavens or swallow a stick a hundred amah long. But he would not believe me due to the talebearers who had exaggerated my wealth.”
After much pleading by askanim, the fine was reduced to 10,000 thalers in installments and the Tosfos Yom Tov’s friends helped him pay the huge fine over the next two years.
Meanwhile, his enemies persuaded the emperor to expel him from his rabbinical post in Prague and forbid him from serving as rav anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire. Due to this, he spent the last part of his life in the Polish- Lithuanian commonwealth.
On the 28th of Av, he was freed and informed that the emperor had revoked the requirement to destroy his two seforim. It would suffice to erase the offending words and replace them with another word like Akum or Kusim.
“On that very day I left after being arrested forty days before [on the 17th of Tammuz], naki [innocent]…,” he writes. “I left Vienna for Prague in 5390  shamed and bereft of all I had, and deprived of the honor of the rabbinate. I arrived in Prague the day before Yom Kippur, pained at the events of the past and worried about the future.”
In memory of his calamity, he decreed a fast day for his descendants on the fifth of Tammuz, the day he left for his trial in Vienna. Initially, he decreed no day of celebration for his freedom “since I was left with nothing but my shirt from all that I had, was deprived of the honor of the rabbanus, and had a large debt since I was unable, whether with land or movables, to pay the fine and other expenses.”
Years later, he changed his mind after being appointed rav of Krakow on the first of Adar, 5504/1634. Regarding this event as symbolic of his complete redemption from misery to greatness, he established this day as a time of feasting and joy for all his descendants.